Saturday, March 21, 2009

Guess Who's Coming to (Beer) Dinner

One very welcome trend on the rise recently in urban culture is the event known as the beer dinner, often also called the beer-pairing dinner. Print, broadcast and online media love the idea, as it provides a simple and cheap human-interest piece, all the time showcasing such image-friendly items as fine dining and craft beer.

Many restaurants and pubs are just now becoming aware of both the appeal of and business opportunity for pairing craft beer with food. The concept is terribly simple, yet subtle: a multi-course meal is prepared, and each course is paired with a specific beer or beer style. Sometimes it is in conjunction with a local or regional brewer or central theme, and sometimes it is simply composed of a thoughtful mix of commercially available craft beers.

It may be easier to simply list what a beer dinner entails than attempt to expand the concept or rules any further. A recent local beer dinner included the following menu (the beers are usually served in smaller 4- or 6-ounce samples instead of full pint servings):
  • First course: Lamb medallion with a kriek glaze and white asparagus puree, paired with a schwarzbier.
  • Second course: Chilled cucumber soup with fried lotus root, paired with a light helles lager.
  • Third course: Blackened salmon with citrus coulis and arugula, paired with an English-style pale ale.
  • Fourth course: Slow-roasted beef with spring vegetables and garlic cous cous, paired with an American amber ale.
  • Fifth course: Berry cheesecake with chocolate crust, paired with a maibock.
The intent of the beer dinner is to show how the flavors of each dish can be matched, complimented or fortified by selected beer styles, often in much better ways than wine is able. After all, craft beer derives from the same ingredients as bread and herbs, not fruit. It is only natural for a malt-based beverage to accompany dishes made up of grains, spices and meats.

The subtlety comes in finding craft beers to compliment the food, and sometimes cooking food that specifically compliments the beers. A properly designed beer dinner should not be a random match, feature only crowd favorites or be a showcase for rare beer styles. Strong flavors are acceptable only so much as they can be augmented by other strong flavors, either from the beers or the food.

The greatest benefit from events such as this is to re-introduce the idea that beer is food. For too long, beer has been relegated merely as a beverage of cheap convenience and refreshment by large corporate breweries, something only the working class swilled to quench their thirst during sporting events. Modern craft beer is as complex and sophisticated as any wine or spirit, and presenting it to the consuming public in this manner elevates it to a more suitable level.

Most beer dinners are well within the affordable range for most diners, and it is a great method of presenting craft beer to an underinformed public while also educating those already fans about some flavors and styles with which they may not be familiar. And as it seems to be quite profitable for many merchants and provides promotion for smaller, local brewers, these dinners will hopefully only develop and grow in popularity.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Extreme Beers

Brewing lends itself to experimentation in the same way as cooking up a recipe in a kitchen. Ingredients can be used or featured based on their individual strengths and flavors, their seasonal availability or to the taste of the chef. And as always, limits and prescribed recipes exist only to be pushed, challenged and extended.

The American craft brewing scene has an element of rogue extreme beers galloping along its fringes. What is meant by “extreme beers” are certain craft beers that push the limits of style guidelines, palatability or alcoholic strength. These are almost by definition experimental products, some little more than commercial test batches that have been formally released.

The descriptor "extreme” is taken to mean beyond simply the stronger versions of more traditional styles. Strong IPAs and imperial stouts may creep into the 10% ABV range but extreme beers routinely double this. Yet it is not necessarily the gravity that defines an extreme beer but some attribute taken to excess beyond any contemporary product or stylistic guideline.

By their very nature, extreme beers can be expensive and calorie-laden. Anywhere from twice to ten times the ingredients of a normal batch of beer can be used to produce just a single batch of these beers. This makes their prices soar, and small batch runs yield limited availability that is only compounded by rabid fans and consumers.

Because extreme beers are such a financial commitment on the part of the brewer, only a few brewers have the means to even attempt these rarities. Likewise, only a subset of the craft beer consuming market is willing to invest in these beers, yet somehow demand remains very high nationwide. Some present commercial examples include:

Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. This is a dark imperial stout that pushes the limits of viscosity. At 13% ABV, this stout is as thick as sorghum and has elements of coffees, chocolates and ports. A special day is set aside each April for its annual release that draws pilgrims to the brewery in Indiana from across the United States.

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. This is another Russian imperial stout that has traded places back and forth with the Utopia in years past for the world record of the highest gravity commercial beer. Generally around 18% ABV, this is another heavy stout with components of roasted coffee, merlot, dark fruits and licorice.

Samuel Adams Triple Bock. Batches of this extreme beer were brewed only in 1994, 1995 and 1997, yet bottles can still be found in retailers around the country. An experimental (and somewhat controversial) extension of the doppelbock style, the Triple Bock reached 17.5% ABV and has been described as everything from a heavily malted ale to an unpalatable blend of soy sauce and wine.

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. Supposedly a continuation of their sixty- and ninety-minute hopping process from the beers of the same names, this is less a strong IPA and more of a hoppy American barleywine. Recent batches have clocked in at 21% ABV, and this beer is designed to age in the cellar for decades or longer. Trust me when I say this beer greatly improves with even just a little age.

Samuel Adams Utopia. The most extreme of commercial beers, this beer requires several different yeast strains to reach its final gravity of 27% ABV. Sold in a very distinctive gold vessel modeled after a full-sized mash tun, a single bottle can retail for as much as $125. Remarkably, the beer remains smooth and drinkable without becoming whiskey-hot with the highest alcohol level ever recorded for a commercial beer.